Dear Salty: We attended an evening commencement ceremony recently. We ate before it started, but after sitting through the endless speeches we needed a snack. Head over to a local diner-type spot and it’s crowded—everyone at the graduation has the same idea. It’s fine, we’re not in a hurry, we wait 45 minutes then get seated.
First thing the server says is “You have to excuse me. I’m really sick today, but I can’t afford to take the night off because I need the money.”
What’s our move? We’ve already invested 45 minutes and know the wait at everything else open that late is gonna be brutal—we’d be back to the end of the line. Do we ask to move to another table? It’s crowded, so who knows how long that’s gonna take? Do we complain to the manager? What if we get the server sent home (she needs the money) or worse (suspended? fired?).
We stuck it out reluctantly. No one really I really felt like finding someplace else at that hour. I stayed, ate little and have been bombing myself with Vitamin C ever since. Fingers crossed.
What do you suggest we should have done in this situation? How do servers manage their colds when they need the money? Why did she tell us in the first place? (This last is rhetorical, but I asked anyway).
Dear Grossed Out,
Going to work sick is a shitty reality for plenty of people in the industry—the Centers For Disease Control says 20% of us have worked in the past year while experiencing vomiting or diarrhea, ughhhhh—but there’s no need to broadcast it. Your server could have been sick with something that’s not contagious, of course, like migraines or back pain or a UTI, and was trying to explain why she might seem distracted. But still, no reason to blab about being sick and making your tables think they’re going to catch the flu.
I’m certain the server didn’t come to work with bells on. Restaurants can make it nearly impossible for workers to call in sick, usually because we don’t get sick leave or because we’re chewed out for needing a day off last-minute. I’ve been told to find someone to cover my shift or expect a kick out the door. You might be thinking: but health codes! Actually though, it’s not necessarily illegal for sick workers to come in. The FDA’s Food Code, which is the basis for state and local food codes, recommends that workers with symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea don’t work. But that’s just common sense. Some counties have health documents that are part of restaurants’ staff training, and workers might be asked to sign an agreement saying they promise to tell their managers when they’re sick. If they don’t, they could face consequences. Whether those are enforced, of course…
So, what could you have done when you found out Typhoid Mary was your server? If the restaurant wasn’t so busy, I’d say that before you order, you should ask a manager to switch tables. If you’re afraid of getting the server in trouble, say it’s because you want to sit by a window or because it’s too cold where you are. But with a busy restaurant, you have to weigh whether you want to wait to get seated in a different server’s station or risk picking up whatever germs might get served alongside your Caesar salad.
I personally would have asked for my food to-go. It’s not a perfect solution, but maybe the food would get plated directly into to-go boxes in the kitchen, cutting down on the time your server spends touching your plates and talking to you with her germ breath. I’m sympathetic to her cause, because I’ve been there—feeling awful but living in fear of my manager—but of course it’s crappy to think you could be making others sick.
You asked how sick workers deal with it, and the answer is the same as what you did as a customer: Wash your hands a lot and hope for the best.
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